I’m asked time and again why I’ve chosen to work on this particular project. Each time, I explain what I’m doing; the purpose and the plan. It seems logical to me that understanding the ‘what’ will answer the ‘why?’ so I give some version of the following answer.
A little over a week ago, I announced MARGINS, a personal project I’m working on. The purpose of the project is to bring awareness to marginalized groups of people. MARGINS will be comprised of large, oversized, close up portraits lined up in galleries. The viewer will be met by the unwavering stare of one individual after another while walking through the show. While the subject matter may illicit emotional discomfort, images allow the viewer to stare, inspect, explore the faces in a non-threatening environment. Because the viewer is seeing images and not actual people, there is a element of voyeurism, only in this case, the faces will be staring back into the eyes of the viewer. Ultimately, I believe that once you look into the eyes of another, you cannot deny their humanity.
MARGINS will be launched in stages, the first of which will focus on the Trans community. Other stages will focus on the homeless, the destitute poor, people of color, women and girls, and addicts.
Almost without fail, I get a puzzled look and another, more plaintive cry,
Why THIS and not something else? Why not some other cause? There are so many good causes that are so much….easier to stomach/more sympathetic/better/less divisive/etc., etc.?”
The truth is, the answer is long; too long to give in short, concise bullet points. Today, I’m going to share with you part of the reason this project is so important to me. It isn’t the full story, but each week, I will share more of my journey and how this all came to matter so very much to me.
It took me months to formulate a vision and a plan for this project. I’ve witnessed injustice and bigotry all my life.
Like most people I know, I was born with an innate sense of right and wrong. As a child, appalled at the lack of action by my adults, I questioned these things. I was told time and again, “That’s the way things are.” Later I was given reasons (i.e.: excuses) certain people were treated differently.
Even though my mind struggled to reconcile the truth with the answers given by parents, extended family, teachers and other adults, I was troubled by an lingering sense of unease. I did what comes naturally. I put on blinders and accepted “the way things are.” I’m not proud of it. At the same time, I don’t blame the adults who raised me. They also taught me the Golden Rule, to love Jesus, to be kind to animals, to mind my manners and to never cheat, lie or steal.
At the tender age of 40, I moved away from my small hometown in south Georgia, to intown Atlanta. Intown Atlanta is truly a global city.
There are innumerable generic suburbs surrounding Atlanta. If you were to be blindfolded and driven in any direction outside the city, you’d be hard pressed to identify any particular suburb in the endless sprawl of strip malls, big box stores and chain restaurants.
Ah, but the city is different. In Atlanta proper, each neighborhood has it’s own unique personality. As one leaves one neighborhood and enters the next, there is a palpable difference; Cabbagetown is a different from Druid Hills and night is from day. At the heart of it all, is Midtown, where people of all types merge into a colorful, eclectic, and downright strange soup of pedestrians, cyclists and drivers.
It was here that I was finally free to examine my ideals, beliefs and convictions with no pressure to conform to anything at all. At first, the diversity was overwhelming, but in time, like most city dwellers, I found the differences interesting and stimulating, and later mostly unimportant at all. I don’t bother to wonder about the barista’s religion or my doctor’s sexual orientation. When I am greeted at the door of one of my favorite watering holes by a gorgeous trans woman, I only wonder how on earth she manages to keep the mountains on her chest looking so perky and perfect. Just this week, I caught myself admiring a masterpiece of contouring makeup on a gorgeous coffee skinned male valet and trying to figure out how he made it look so perfect.
But, back to my story.
This is hard for me to admit.
I’m ashamed to say that, like most people raised in the societal isolation of small towns, I had a hard time understanding gender issues. I had been taught that people came in two sexes, male and female. It wasn’t questioned. It just WAS.
Likewise, I learned that sexually, people were gay or straight; that bisexuality was just another flavor of gay.
I had to relearn quite a lot. I resisted. Steadfastly resisted.
I considered myself open minded because I never had a problem with people being gay. I couldn’t sure, but it seemed logical to me that sexual orientation was either a choice or the result of some childhood sexual trauma. Now, of course, I feel a deep sense of shame for ever believing any of that but I am able to forgive myself for being a product of my environment. I hope you will forgive me too.
My children, the three people on earth who I love with all of my heart, taught me to open my mind, and my eyes, to the truth.
Chelsea, my oldest, brash and unapologetic, bold and daring, led the assault by telling me that all three of my kids were “a little gay.” On this heels of this outrageous assertion, Emily, her little sister, my sweet people-pleaser of a daughter, began dating a girl.
I was faced with an ultimatum, the choice between loving my child or judging her. I love my children with a fierceness that seems almost impossible. Faced with a formerly unthinkable situation, I found there simply was no choice. My children are my constant joy. I care only that they are happy, healthy, safe and kind. It was impossible to look into the eyes of my beloved daughter and do anything but accept her.
Less than a year later, my son, who had gone to live with his father because in his words, “it’s not fair that you have three kids, practically a whole family, and Dad has no one,” was suddenly, forcefully, sent back to live with me. HIs father had discovered material on our son’s phone and computer that suggested our boy might be “experimenting with his sexuality” in a way that my homophobic ex-husband found troubling. As I drove the four plus hours to retrieve my son, I tried to understand how a man could kick his own son out, forcing him to leave behind his friends, his home, his entire life - for ANY reason. On the ride home, once my daughter and her girlfriend had dozed off, lulled to sleep by the monotonous, gentle motion of the drive, I looked over at my son. His face was a stark white mask of pain, fury and anxiety.
“George?” I said quietly.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he muttered, trying to evince a manly strength with every fiber of his 14 year old being.
I waited a few minutes, trying desperately to formulate the words to soothe his heart and mind without causing more distress.
“I just want to tell you something. You don’t have to respond at all.” I paused.
“I love you. I don’t care if you are gay or straight or a furry, or brony, or anything in between. I love you. I will ALWAYS love you. You will ALWAYS have a place in my home. Even if you turn out to be a serial killer, I will ALWAYS love you. Nothing can change that. I will visit you in prison and tell you through bullet proof glass that I love you.”
Outraged and appalled, he cried out, “I’m not a freaking serial killer!”
“Well, obviously, I don’t want you to be a serial killer, but EVEN IF YOU WERE, I would love you just the same. I would be heartbroken, because you’d be in prison and probably executed – but there is NOTHING IN THIS WORLD you can do to make me not love you. NOTHING will ever make me disown you, throw you out, stop loving you. Do you understand?”
Tears began creeping from the corners of his eyes as he nodded, looking straight ahead into the grey path of interstate, blanketed by an inky blackness merging into navy blue, dotted with red tail lights of semi-trucks.
I continued, “I only want you to be happy, healthy, kind and safe. I love that you are intelligent and funny and that you have so many interests, so different from my own. I love that you are handsome and tall; but all I really, REALLY, want is for you to be happy, safe, healthy and kind. I want you to find someone to love who appreciates you and loves you back. It doesn’t matter to me who they are or where they came from.”
From the corner of my eye, I saw an almost imperceptible nod. We sat together, not speaking, holding hands in solidarity, as classic rock played quietly and the world streamed past outside, for a long time.
When the overwhelming surge of emotions began to settle and his breathing returned to normal, I said, “Get some sleep if you can. Rest now. It’s 3 am and we still have an hour before we reach the city.”
He looked over at me, with exhaustion setting in, overtaking and displacing the pain, anger and anxiety, and a look of relief and appreciation, he said, “I love you, Mommy,” and closed his eyes.
That was two years ago. The aftermath immediately following George’s reintroduction to our home was rocky. We’ve moved twice since then and I ended a four year relationship with a man I had hoped to marry. The kids are fine. Chelsea is living in San Diego with a sweet, funny, kind and handsome, man. Emily graduated from high school with honors and is dating a boy, who I think is probably one of the world’s best humans. George is excelling at school and has a tight group of friends he’s met along the way. By the way, George, at least so far, has had his share of high school romances, with a string of local girls.
As for me, I still have no idea if my son is bisexual, if my daughters will end up in straight marriages or whether they will ultimately end up with other beautiful women as life partners. I only know that I do not care.
Next week, perhaps I will tell you how I came to understand gender issues and the sad truth about the bigotry those brave souls who have the courage to risk everything in order to be themselves face.